“New balls please”: Joe Marler takes the dark arts of rugby a step too far
On 7 March 2020, England played Wales at Twickenham Stadium in the Six Nations Rugby Championship, winning 33 points to 30. During the first half of the match, England’s prop forward Joe Marler was seen to grab the genitals of Wales’ captain, Alun Wyn Jones. Although this incident went unnoticed by officials during the game, Marler’s actions were made subject of a citing complaint by the independent citing commissioner following the conclusion of the game.
The citing complaint alleged that Marler had infringed rule 9.27 of World Rugby’s Handbook which states that:
“A player must not do anything that is against the spirit of good sportsmanship”.
The World Rugby Handbook does not provide a definition of what is meant by an act “against the spirit of good sportsmanship”. However, section 9.27 in Appendix 1 to Regulation 17 (Discipline: Foul Play) sets out examples of behaviour which would be contrary to the principle of good sportsmanship, and that behaviour includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Hair pulling or grabbing
- Spitting at anyone
- Grabbing, twisting or squeezing the genitals (and/or breasts in the case of female players)
The sanctions available to a Disciplinary Committee who find proved any of the acts set out in section 9.27 above are prescribed in the same section. If a Disciplinary Committee are satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that a player has grabbed, twisted or squeezed the genitals of another, then the sanction range is as follows:
- Low end – 12 week suspension
- Mid-range – 18 week suspension
- Top end – 24+ week suspension
- Maximum – 208 week suspension
By virtue of Regulation 17.19.1 of the World Rugby Handbook, all Disciplinary Committees dealing with a citing shall apply World Rugby’s sanctions for Foul Play set out in Appendix 1 and do so in accordance with Regulation 17.19. The Committee are required under this Regulation to undertake an assessment of the seriousness of the Player’s conduct and to categorise that conduct as being at the lower end, mid-range or top end of the scale of seriousness so that the appropriate entry point for sanction can be identified. Factors relevant to this assessment of seriousness include for example, whether the offending was intentional or deliberate, the gravity of the player’s actions, the existence of any provocation and the effect of the player’s actions on the match. Once the appropriate category has been identified, the Disciplinary Committee should consider whether there are any aggravating or mitigating factors applicable to their case in order to arrive at the appropriate level of sanction.
The Disciplinary Hearing
During the disciplinary hearing for the incident involving Welsh captain, Marler accepted that he had committed an act of foul play, however he did not accept that he had grabbed, twisted or squeezed the genitals of the Welsh captain and he did not accept that it warranted a red card.
The Committee found against Marler and concluded that he had committed an act of foul play (an infringement of rule 9.27) and that it had warranted a red card, so the citing complaint was upheld. However, the Committee found that this particular act of foul play warranted a low end suspension of 12 weeks. They further reduced that period by 3 weeks to reflect certain mitigating factors, including Marler’s good character and remorse; however, the Committee then increased the period by 1 week to take account of the aggravating feature of Marler’s most recent disciplinary record. The final period of suspension imposed was 10 weeks.
This incident has been a controversial one and divided opinion amongst rugby fans, pundits and ex-players. Arguments aimed at minimising Marler’s actions as “banter” and lacking any mal-intent have been repeatedly deployed in his defence. Several notable individuals in the rugby world have publicly taken issue with the reaction of Wyn Jones in his post-match interview, the period of suspension imposed on Marler and the way he has been treated in general for his actions. For example, Lawrence Dallaglio believed Marler’s suspension should have been in the region of 5 – 6 weeks, Danny Care described Marler’s actions as “a bit of banter” and Mike Brown called the 10 week suspension a “ridiculous outcome” which should have warranted only “a slap on the wrist”. In Brown’s view, “there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t turn on another player unless they’ve done something beyond the pale. Maybe I’m just too old-school?”. On the contrary, former Welsh rugby players and pundits Gwyn Jones and Jonathan Davies described Marler’s actions as “unacceptable”, “completely inappropriate” and “pure stupidity”.
Despite the significant division in public opinion this incident has generated, it appears that the Disciplinary Committee have acted only in accordance with the rules by which it is bound. The actions of Marler fell squarely into the example of conduct which contravened the principle of “good sportsmanship” and punishment for such behaviour was clearly prescribed in the Handbook. This demonstrates that World Rugby and its disciplinary procedures will not be influenced by public opinion nor will it allow the “unwritten rules” of times gone by to dictate how it regulates the game.
 Save where Appendix 3 applies, namely Disciplinary Guidelines for Underage Game
 Full list of factors are set out at Regulation 17.19.2
 Full list of aggravating factors are set out at Regulation 17.19.4 and mitigating factors at Regulation 17.19.5